ST. JOSEPH — Berrien County Board of Commissioners Chairman Mac Elliott expects a public report to be issued following the investigation of a special counsel into allegations of a possible conflict of interest involving Commissioner Teri Freehling.
On Thursday, commissioners passed a resolution giving attorney John Dewane “full power and authority” to look into the issue, including interviewing county employees, obtaining documents and reviewing the board’s bylaws.
Dewane, a retired Berrien County judge, was appointed last week to investigate allegations that Freehling failed to disclose a possible conflict of interest concerning money that went from the drain office to her late husband. He will be paid $215 an hour.
The Berrien County prosecutor’s office declined to seek misdemeanor criminal charges against Freehling over the alleged failure to disclose a conflict of interest. Freehling, who hasn’t attended a meeting since May, serves on the finance committee, which reviews and votes on bids.
The resolution states that the special counsel “shall have unrestricted access to all records and documents in the possession or under the control of any county employee, and shall have access to and the full cooperation of each commissioner and all county employees, including but not limited to corporate counsel and the county administrator, who shall direct his staff to provide whatever assistance is needed.”
County employees are mandated to “preserve and retain all records and documents in their possession” connected with the issue.
Not all of that information will automatically be made public. The resolution stipulates that “the county does not waive the attorney-client privilege following disclosure to Special Counsel,” including privileged or confidential records.
“Anything that he looks at that is privileged stays privileged,” Elliott said.
Commissioner Jon Hinkelman asked whether the clause concerning attorney-client privilege would prevent a report being issued to the public.
Corporate Counsel James McGovern said that the final report will belong to the board.
After the meeting, Elliott said there would be a public report, and that it might resemble the Mueller Report on election interference, with some confidential information redacted.
Hinkelman also wanted to know if the authority to talk to all county employees extended to Drain Commissioner Christopher Quattrin, an elected official.
McGovern said that Dewane could ask to speak to the drain commissioner, but the county board could not force Quattrin to comply.
Hinkelman said that while he was “very much in favor” of the resolution, he was concerned about whether it was telling commissioners how to feel about the issue.
Commissioner Bill Chickering responded that the investigation would deal with facts, not feelings, and the information provided would direct commissioners on how to think about the matter.
A report is expected within three weeks.
Benton Township resident Jerry Sirk urged commissioners to look at ways of strengthening their bylaws “to keep this from happening again.”
The issue concerns contracts awarded by the drain office to Doug Hartzler, of Bridgman, who then rented heavy equipment from Patrick Freehling. Hartzler was paid around $400,000 over two years, a significant portion of which went to Freehling, who died in May in an accident at his Baroda Township farm.
Hartzler has filed a civil suit against Teri Freehling, the estate of her late husband, and Quattrin, alleging fraud concerning the contracts.
Last week County Administrator Bill Wolf, speaking as a private citizen during a board meeting, said commissioners should ask the state attorney general to look into “allegations of serial corruption” among elected officials. Elliott said such a request “won’t happen on my watch.”
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